September 13, 2016

The Truth Is Deceitful: 'Author' Tells a Story about a Story

Savannah Knoop and Laura Albert in 'Author: The JT Leroy Story,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

In the ninth grade, punk rock was writer-musician Laura Albert's salvation. Punk would also become part of the reason she would trust documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig with the story of her life - and the lives she created in a masterful, decade-long hoax cum performance art project. Albert, 50, conjured up JT LeRoy, and through this teenage wunderkind avatar, created a series of darkly lurid, hardscrabble books about male prostitution and drug addiction that shook the world and seduced an avid corps of artists - Lou Reed, Gus Van Sant, Asia Argento, Courtney Love among them - to champion and befriend this fictional persona. Albert had enlisted her 21-year-old sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, who, through the 1990s and 2000s, would be the public face of JT LeRoy - reclusive writer, in-demand celebrity. By her critics, Albert, who created five different personae to complement JT LeRoy, has largely been billed a phenomenal literary liar. And now Albert has finally come clean in Author: The JT LeRoy Story, a documentary designed explicitly for her to do so. In a recent radio interview, Albert explained that Feuerzeig "understood her paradigm. He was Jewish, came from the East Coast and, most importantly, was from the punk scene."

The language of empathy takes many forms. Feuerzeig's 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, chronicled, as Feuerzeig puts it, "the same intersection of madness and creativity" that he finds himself consistently drawn to. "These are deep rabbit holes that both subjects go down. Daniel Johnston created an entire fictional universe of characters while simultaneously channeling so much of his autobiographical themes in art and music. Laura Albert also invented a fictional character - in fact, many fictional characters. But more important than the multiple characters in this fictional universe that she created, she was channeling autobiographical themes inside her fiction, in this fictional universe. The central themes of her two books, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, are essentially physical abuse, sexual abuse and gender fluidity. The lot lizards, West Virginia, raccoon penis bones, the jackalopes, the truck-stop world - that's all fiction. She's never been to a truck stop. But the sexual abuse, gender fluidity, were very much her own themes."

When The New York Times exposed JT LeRoy, Feuerzeig had never heard of the story. Prompted by a journalist friend, he was soon up to speed. "I just had this feeling that there was much more to the story than we were being told, because Laura Albert...had held back her story," the filmmaker notes. "I reached out to her and sent The Devil and Daniel Johnston."

Feuerzeig's visceral film on Johnston's violent struggles with mental illness even as he continued to produce brilliant work spoke to Albert. "This, for me, is a subjective journey and I'm not interested in moralizing," Feuerzeig emphasizes. "I'm not her priest and I'm not her rabbi; I'm her documentarian. And it's impossible not to have empathy for someone who was sexually abused at a young age. You see with Laura how forthcoming she is with all her deceit. There was nothing she held back."

Feuerzeig is from the school of nonfiction filmmaking that subscribes to the truth-versus-facts New Journalism of the '60s and '70s that is as immersive for the reporter as for the subject. "I've always said that my goal in all of these journeys was to seek a deeper truth," Feuerzeig elaborates. "In a way, I see this as the purest form of interactive film; it engages the viewer by provoking thought. Just like New Journalism shook up Journalism, subjective nonfiction filmmaking is shaking up documentary. Obviously Author: The JT LeRoy Story is not a vérité film, although there are many vérité moments in the archival footage. I was more interested in forging a largely singular anti-hero's journey across a classic three-act structure."

Jeff Feuerzeig, director of 'Author: The JT Leroy Story,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: David Newsom

Author and The Devil and Daniel Johnston have similarities that go beyond the imprint of a filmmaker. Feuerzeig does not shy away from recognizing his own patterns and the striking parallels within both films. "[Albert and Johnston] have a lot in common. Like Johnston, her story largely came out of her backstory, all those revelations that I uncovered, that became the Super 8mm flashbacks of the film. We could not have known any of this material that I'd found."

Both Albert and Johnston obsessively kept records of their lives. "I don't think anyone is necessarily keeping score in documentary history, but I believe The Devil and Daniel Johnston was the biggest documentary excavation of archival material achieved," Feuerzeig claims. "And Daniel, of course, had all of my favorite materials—Super 8mm home movies, which in many ways for me, function as memory, a synapses firing of the past. And audio vérité. Audio diaries. And all his notebooks from childhood. It was endless. Laura had identical types of material and more. What was great was that it allowed me to create this immersive experience."

Author, too, is a feat of archival assembly, constructed over the course of a year and multiple trips between New York and San Francisco. The fuzzy warmth of Super 8mm home movies are stark against the violence of the audio that plays over them - revelations of Laura's damaged childhood. The film itself is one uncovering after another, of a struggle with identity inflamed by the desire to be anyone else. "Maybe these stories find me for a reason," Feuerzeig muses. "To me it was incredibly rewarding to hear those stories, to learn that she had been making those calls as boys and calling helplines that she had an addiction to, since she was a young girl."

Feuerzeig is at heart an editor, as much as he is a director. "Throughout the entire two years, I never stop editing, never stop playing with structure, never stop creating scenes," he says. "I start with research and since these are all stories that took place in the past, locating or identifying as much archival material as possible is part of that. Then getting your story told from your protagonist or multiple tellers. And then creating what I call radio plays and shooting a lot of high-end, expensive visuals."

While sifting through Albert's journals, Feuerzeig unearthed more than just her secrets. Albert's gifts of imagination and precision unlocked his own narrative. "I found through my research all her little-girl notebooks, pages and pages of hotline, helpline phone numbers," Feuerzeig recalls. "In the margins of these little-girl notebooks, she had drawn these boy-girl doodles, hundreds of them. Those became the doodles I animated. I wanted audiences to experience her writing in small morsels or edible bites; you can't read someone a whole book or even a short story over the course of a movie. The animation in Author: The JT LeRoy Story works in the same way as the songs did in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, where audiences needed to hear the music this artist created."

In one scene in the film, Albert watches with trepidation as Savannah Knoop, posing as JT LeRoy, is interviewed by a German TV network. They ask Knoop a question on writing, to which she responds, "When I am not writing, I feel like I'm floating." Albert describes it as "amazing to watch as the interviewer settled into her because she had the right look, the right features for JT LeRoy." In the film, Albert prays to wake up "as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy that a man could love."

Since the LeRoy story has been something of a phoenix, in the press, one of the common descriptions of Albert is as a mother, or housewife, from Brooklyn, in contrast to the youthful, iconic image she masterminded. In Author, Feuerzeig shows a recording of Albert at one of the first readings of her books in San Francisco. Albert sits amidst the crowd, anonymous, thrilled at the reaction to her book and her words, entirely convinced that the writer of this fiction had to be the opposite of who she was: "I would have died if anyone knew because I'm big and I'm not comfortable in my skin and everyone's coming to hear this really hip, cool, new writer and I'm not it." When JT LeRoy becomes a Warhol-esque icon, celebrated far beyond the page, it is stirring and surreal, no matter what designs Albert may have had.

Savannah Knoop and Bono in 'Author: The JT Leroy Story,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

Feuerzeig compares Albert to Tommy, the eponymous fictional character from The Who's 1969 rock opera about a traumatized young boy. Despite growing up to be an international cult figure, Tommy remains catatonic until he literally and metaphorically smashes through his mirror. "It was revelation after revelation for me, finding out that during her punk rock salvation as a teenager, Laura had so much shame and body issues that she sent her sister Jojo out as her avatar," the filmmaker explains. "And then of course, 20 years later, she sends Savannah Knoop out as JT LeRoy. Even in the group home, after her multiple institutionalizations, at a screening of The Who's Quadrophenia, she meets Skinhead Mike, and pretends for months to be British! That of course is Speedie [whom Albert created as JT's handler] ten years later. [Laura] turned out to be a fantastic storyteller. She went through a metamorphosis and came out the other end. It was very much similar to Tommy. Tommy was a very powerful artist to me, where a young boy experiences trauma and shuts down for years and finally smashes through the mirror and resurrects himself."

Feuerzeig hopes to erase the idea that Albert was on the hunt for a book deal. Instead, he describes the events of JT LeRoy's arc as organic. "The original accusation was that some middle-aged woman from Brooklyn came up with the idea of posing as this underage boy who had been an abused, drug-addicted, truck-stop prostitute with HIV who went out and begged people for an agent and book deal. But as you learn in the film, that's not what happened at all. This person was calling a San Francisco help-line therapist for three years, and the therapist eventually urged JT to write as a therapeutic outlet. The boy started writing, the writing got passed around, he reached out to some admired authors for mentorship, and his work got published. When the accolades and great reviews started coming in, Laura slipped into reactive mode and surfed the wave of JT's success, because it was validation for the art she had created."

There is a single exception to the pointedly sole focus on Laura. An interview with Savannah Knoop takes up brief minutes of the film. This scene sheds little light on the woman who performed as JT LeRoy for a decade, as a fashion icon who captured the imagination of art, literary and cinema circles alike, experiencing celebrity in a way writers infrequently do. Feuerzeig would have liked to incorporate her perspective. "She took herself off the table," reveals Feuerzeig. "And I went ahead and made the film. When the film was essentially finished, a month and a half before Sundance, I get a phone call and it's Savannah! She said she'd like to be in the film, to which I said it was too late. Then I met with my producers and we decided that it would be interesting to have a surprise appearance by her towards the end. I didn't know what she would tell me but I got this one line I love, that's in the film. It's about belief. She had her own unique journey with the JT LeRoy story."

Financing was a two-year process. Feuerzeig attracted a corps of high-profile producers including Vice Media (Danny Gabai), A&E IndieFilms (Molly Thompson) and Ratpac Documentary Films (Brett Ratner). "They were great producing partners in that they were fans of my other films and they were very supportive of my creative vision and let me do whatever I wanted to do and explore," Feuerzeig notes. "All they ended up telling me was they wanted something unique and challenging." Festivals and distributors have been just as welcoming. Says Feuerzeig, "We went to Sundance, and Amazon bought the film the very first day, which was fantastic because I love their model. Amazon really believes in the theatrical; all their films are getting a proper theatrical release."

For Feuerzeig, a new film is on the way. Titled Mingering Mike, it documents another story of the territories and meeting points of imagination, art and deception. "It's about a young African-American kid from the DC ghetto who was drafted to Vietnam," he explains. "Then he deserted and went AWOL and hid in his bedroom for seven years from the military police until Jimmy Carter pardoned all deserters and draft dodgers. In that seven-year period, in his mind, in his imagination, he became the biggest soul, R&B music star in the world. All of it was rendered and painted in the imaginary universe that he created, which is now in the Smithsonian. It's a really cool true story."

For Author, his expectations are straightforward. "I just hope that people enjoy and experience the film. JT LeRoy provokes a lot of thought and discussion, particularly about what fiction is and where it comes from. I've said that it's the wildest story about story ever heard."

As Author ends, Albert issues a brief apology to those who have felt betrayed. She states that the books have always had the label of fiction on their jackets and leaves it at that. And she emphatically maintains that her act was no hoax. Feuerzeig ends the film with a hypnotic song from Lou Reed, another of LeRoy's many friends. It's called "Vanishing Act" and it includes these lyrics: "It must be nice to disappear/To have a vanishing act/To always be looking forward/And never looking back."

Author: The JT LeRoy Story is playing in theaters through Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures.

Nayantara Roy is a writer and journalist currently at Columbia University.

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